Why do we need more zebra companies instead of unicorn companies?

Igor Mishevski
6 min readJan 24, 2022

In the jungle of startups, there are different species of companies. The startup world is dynamic and ever-changing, where new species come to life and die every day. There are a lot of other business models in the startup world, but the most popular ones are unicorns and zebras.

The world values have changed drastically since the 1980s, and a new breed of entrepreneur has emerged. The unicorn entrepreneur has founded a successful startup worth at least $1 billion in equity valuation. These entrepreneurs are often the toast of Silicon Valley, celebrated for their vision and innovation. Yet, the planet is beginning to suffer from an over-concentration of unicorns focused only on tech and exponential growth. Could it be that we need more zebra companies instead?

Unicorns are startups that have reached a billion-dollar valuation or more. They represent less than 0.1% of all startups, and they account for over 68% of all venture capital investment in technology companies since 1995. On the other hand, Zebras represent most of all startups out there. However, they only account for 2% of venture capital investment in technology companies since 1995.

What is a Unicorn Company?

What do you think of when you hear the word “unicorn”? A mythical creature? A magical animal? Or a company valued at one billion dollars or more? The term unicorn has come to symbolize a high-growth startup company. A unicorn is a private company, typically with an internet focus, with a valuation of more than $1 billion. The term “unicorn” has been used to describe the few companies that have reached this milestone. And it seems like everyone wants to be next.

The term “unicorn” was coined in 2013 by venture capitalist Aileen Lee, who defines it as a startup company with an estimated value of at least $1 billion. The term derives from the mythical creature known as the unicorn, often depicted as rare and difficult to capture in folklore and children’s stories.

Unicorn companies are not just the preserve of Silicon Valley or China’s tech sector but can be found worldwide. Unicorns have some strengths and weaknesses when compared to other types of companies. They have access to more capital than public companies, so they can afford to take product development risks or hire talent. They are also less accountable to shareholders to have a longer-term focus on growth rather than short-term shareholder value maximization.

What is a Zebra Company?

A Zebra Company can be any business, from an online store to a restaurant. They are tech-enabled companies. It’s all about being different and unique from the competition. The term was first coined by McKinsey & Company in their 2015 report “The age of analytics: Competing in a data-driven world.” The authors of Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think then popularized it.

Zebra companies are an emerging trend in the business world. Companies that operate on a zebra principle are characterized by their ability to adapt and change, which is imperative in today’s fast-paced business environment. In addition, zebra companies have some exciting strengths that make them stand out from the rest. They are:

  • Flexibility: Zebra companies respond quickly to changes and can pivot more efficiently than traditional businesses
  • Innovation: Zebra companies innovate and create new products or services while leveraging existing ones
  • Transparency: Zebra companies focus on transparency and making their operations as open as possible to the public, employees, investors, etc.
  • Collaboration: Zebra companies embrace collaboration with different parts of the organization, partners, customers, suppliers etc.

A Zebra Company is a company that is both profitable and ethical. It’s a company that takes on the best of both worlds to maximize its success. They won’t sacrifice profits for ethics. That doesn’t mean zebras are nonprofits, either. They are companies that are focused on sustainability too. Instead, it means that zebra businesses have roots in their leaders’ personal experiences and visions.

The founders of these companies are also ordinary people who pursued their passions and decided to make a difference. These CEOs are experts in their respective fields and usually have a larger purpose than themselves. However, only founders who understand the markets they are targeting can make their hobbies or passions profitable. These markets are diverse and include fitness, health, auto toys, music education etc. As long as you are an expert in your field, you don’t need any business background to grow your company successfully. Instead, you should focus on addressing the problems of relevant industries that might become your customers if they associate with the benefits that you offer.

Difference Between Unicorn vs Zebra Companies

A unicorn company is often referred to as “unicorns” because they are challenging to find and rare. The term was used to describe the rarity of privately held tech companies with an estimated worth of over $1 billion.

The term “unicorn company” was first coined in 2013 by venture capitalist Aileen Lee. The term refers to a privately held company valued at $1 billion or more.

Since then, the number of unicorns has grown exponentially, and the world, as of January 2022, is home to over 900 unicorns. Popular former unicorns include Airbnb, Facebook and Google.

A zebra company is a company that is valued at less than $1 billion. They are usually called “zebra” because they are much more common than unicorns, and so people associate them with the animal’s stripes, which can be seen from far away in the wild. A zebra company is an established and profitable company that has grown and become increasingly valuable over time.

There are many striving unicorns. They strive to be the next big thing and are starving for attention. These companies are looking to make it big by becoming the next billion-dollar company or IPO, but many of them will not survive. From striving, they are going to starving :). Not all unicorns succeed in their goal, and they are focused on capital rase series to maintain their growth.

Zebra companies are not strictly tech companies, but they are still using cutting-edge technology to meet current needs. Unicorn startups can appeal to a much larger market, but Zebra startups may offer more options for founders in less popular markets. An excellent example of a Zebra company is Black Girls Code, which has been able to provide many opportunities for more entrepreneurs. However, they may be slower in execution than Unicorn companies.

Zebra companies do not have the exact high valuations as unicorn companies but still manage to be profitable and sustainable. Zebra companies can do this because they have a lower burn rate and a more steady cash flow than unicorn companies. They also don’t have the same pressure to grow fast to be successful, which means they can take time with decisions and investments that might not pay off.

The world is changing, and it is time for companies to adapt to the new environment. The business world has never been more competitive than it is now. As a result, the need for innovation and sustainability has never been greater.

We need more Zebra Companies, companies that can adapt to the changes in the environment, innovate, and be sustainable. It is not enough to survive anymore. Today’s businesses need to thrive on staying relevant in this fast-paced world.

Macedonia and personal mission

The Republic of North Macedonia is one of the newest countries in the EU. It has a young and dynamic population with an entrepreneurial spirit. As a result, the startup scene in Macedonia is quite vibrant, with many successful startups. The most notable ones are EmbedSocial, Cognism, Vidict, Fueloyal, Airport Briefing, UpShift, Adeva and many more. I know most of the founders of these startups, and I believe we will have the first unicorn in Macedonia someday.

Working across different sectors and delivering innovative ideas, I developed my career path as a market system development practitioner, entrepreneurship and ventures building specialist, green economy, and digital jobs advocate in the Balkan region.

Since I believe deeply in sustainability, I have a personal mission to support and mentor zebra companies in Macedonia. They need to have someone who can give them advice on how to grow their business and provide them with the necessary resources. Therefore, if you know a company striving to become a zebra company delivering value to its clients and taking care of sustainability, please point them towards me.



Igor Mishevski

Market Systems Development 🌾 Entrepreneurship and venture building 🚀 Green Economy 🌿 Digital jobs 💻 Finances 💹